Not too long ago, before J-Law and the big movie franchise bucks, The Hunger Games was just the next possible Y.A. sensation. Now, with the Hunger Games phenomenon fully mainstream, there's a bevy of new book-to-film adaptations vying for the title of next big thing at that this year's Comic-Con, which begins in earnest today. So which hopeful will take the crown? Keep your eyes on Divergent. Why? It has the right mix of popular source material, a hot young cast of more-than-just-pretty-faced actors, and a healthy amount of buzz.
Before you even get to the book's content, Divergent has a great story. Author Veronica Roth (who is only 24—jeez) got the deal for the trilogy when she was still a student at Northwestern. So, yes, take a moment to feel bad about yourself. And the actual book? It's fun, if a bit familiar at points. It takes places in a dystopian Chicago where the population is divided into factions. There's Candor, which believes in honesty, Abegnation, which believes in selflessness, Dauntless, which believes in bravery—you get the picture. The smart and gifted heroine is Tris, who chooses to leave her faction, Abegnation, for Dauntless. But really, she belongs in neither because she's—guess what?—Divergent. The Dauntless are mostly jerks (save for a mysterious hot guy called Four) and force their initiates to brutally fight one another and face their greatest fears in dream-like simulations. Tris, of course, excels despite low expectations. The Katniss comparisons are going to be undeniable. Here's another stoic young woman who defies expectations by being both brave and compassionate. The violent deaths of youngsters is also a definite Hunger Games link—though Divergent (at least the first book in the trilogy) is nowhere near as grim.
Divergent has lined up a cast—not unlike The Hunger Games—of young actors and actresses who don't feel plucked from The CW's central casting offices. These kids are the proverbial next big things, good actors with interesting resumes, just like Jennifer Lawrence. Woodland creature Shailene Woodley, who stars as Tris, has, yes, her legion of teen fans as the star of ABC Family pregnancy drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager. But she also wowed adult audiences with her turn opposite George Clooney in The Descendants. When she didn't get nominated for an Oscar that year many cried foul. (She did win an Independent Spirit Award, at least.) As if Lawrence was now old hat, the Huffington Post has already declared Woodley "the next Jennifer Lawrence." This summer, Woodley is the lead in The Spectacular Now, a quiet and heartbreaking Sundance hit about two teenagers falling in love. The real lead of Spectacular Now, though, is Miles Teller, who also has a part in Divergent, playing Tris's rival, Peter. Teller has some projects on his resumé that are probably best not mentioned—two entries in the kids-get-wasted canon, Project X and 21 & Over, in particular—but he got his big break in a super serious role in John Cameron Mitchell's adaptation of the play Rabbit Hole. In The Spectacular Now he's nothing short of terrific, playing a seemingly fun-loving but secretly broken teen, who turns to alcohol in devastating fashion. Divergent also stars Ansel Elgort, who will play Woodley's boyfriend (creepy!) in the highly anticipated adaptation of John Green's wildly popular teens-with-cancer novel The Fault in Our Stars. And then there's smoldering Brit Theo James, who you probably remember as the Turk who died in Lady Mary's bed in season one of Downton Abbey. So, yes, these kids are young and pretty, but they are also our rising "serious actors," who will get to play opposite established serious actors like Kate Winslet in Divergent.
Divergent has the press on its side. Still filming, the movie already has an Entertainment Weekly cover, a big coup for what is essentially an untested property.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: This bid for Y.A. franchise fandom debuts later this summer, but looks as if it might go the way of Beautiful Creatures or The Host, two of the more notable flops of 2013. Unlike Divergent, it's not Hunger Games-dystopic, instead skewing Twilight-fantastical. If the story, about humans with angel blood who fight demons, seems like something you might have seen before, you very well may have. The author of the series, Cassandra Clare, was known in the fan-fiction community for her works based on Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. (Though, some of that work may not have been hers; she had a plagiarism scandal in the fan-fiction community several years ago.) Its nerd-fantasy story aside, The Mortal Instruments just doesn't have the cast. Star Lily Collins is probably best known for the disastrous Mirror Mirror, while Jamie Campbell Bower had a breakout role in Sweeney Todd in 2007, but has since mostly made a name for himself as a bit player in the Harry Potter and Twilight films.
Ender's Game: Ender's Game and Divergent will actually share a Comic-Con panel this week, as both are Summit Entertainment releases. Ender's Game, due out in November, is an interesting case. It's an older property that's been long-gestating in the Hollywood machine. The book is arguably more mature than something like Divergent, but it focuses on younger kids, so there are no heartthrobs for hormone-addled fans to latch onto. And then, as you may have heard, there's the controversy over author Orson Scott Card's homophobia. Cast-wise, Ender's Game is also a little iffy — Harrison Ford and Viola Davis are great and all, but they're certainly not kid favorites.
The Maze Runner: James Dashner's Lord of the Flies-like trilogy—which won't have a Comic-Con presence this year—stars Teen Wolf's goofy surprise heartthrob Dylan O'Brien as Thomas, who must navigate, yes, a maze, a deadly one, with a group of other boys. Patricia Clarkson is the prestige adult in the film. We'll see if a boy-centric tale can catch on when it comes out in 2014.